UK Rail: a metaphor for a failing nation

UK commuters face a summer of strikes, dismal service, and appalling quality. The failing railways have become a metaphor for bungling bureaucracy and incompetent management across the UK. It’s time for radical change – learn from UK Forces about responsibility and give tactical control back to frontline workers.  

Blain’s Morning Porridge, May 26 2022 – UK Rail: a metaphor for a failing nation

“What can be more absurd than the notion of locomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches?”

This morning: UK commuters face a summer of strikes, dismal service, and appalling quality. The failing railways have become a metaphor for bungling bureaucracy and incompetent management across the UK. It’s time for radical change – learn from UK Forces about responsibility and give tactical control back to frontline workers.  

Apologies for the lack of Morning Porridge yesterday; courtesy of South Western Railways – the UK’s equivalent of cruel and unusual punishment.

Regular readers of the porridge will be aware my patience with the vagaries of Rail Transport in the UK is limited. This morning… I am going to try to contain my anger at yesterday’s South Western Trains experience. Instead, let’s look at how Rail in the UK has become something of a metaphor for what’s wrong with the UK economy. I’m not even going to mention government or certain politicians – you know who they are, and what we should do about them.

I have enormous faith in the Nation and the people of Britain. We are an inventive race, clever, commercially minded, and a nose for mercantilism and trade. We are strong because we are an open and welcoming economy. We are blessed with a beautiful temperate land. We are proud of our history and place in the World, knowing we still punch far above our weight, but we wear it lightly. We should be happy and content.

We are let down by our creaking national infrastructure, petty bureaucracies, increasingly venal politics, a rising sense of corruption and anger, and self-serving state monopolies. These seriously hamper growth, recovery and the vague but hopeful opportunities that were promised us by Brexit. Everything is working against us. If ever there was a nation in need of rebirth.. well, we are it.

Over the next few weeks, we celebrate Jubilee; Her Majesty’s 70 years on the Throne. But we’re sadly aware it’s our opportunity to say farewell and thank you as her reign moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

Will this Golden Elizabethan Age end better than it begun?  Today, our place in the world feels more vulnerable and less certain than ever. From British Airways, the Railways, the failing NHS, the apparent politicisation of the police, the detachment of the civil service from their duty… and a billion other little cracks, UK Inc needs a revolution – and I have a little list of heads we can put on the Tower of London’s sharp pointy spikes.

Fish rot from the head down. In every case it’s failures of leadership and management that are to blame.

Yesterday, I met a wonderful guard on my South Western Train. A really good man, concerned about his passengers, upset for them, but powerless to influence the decisions that have made them so unhappy. Recently I wrote about British Airways staff and their embarrassment at the way management is abusing their customers – they don’t want to spend their day apologising. Doctors and nurses are the among the most valuable and skilled lynchpins of the economy, but barely figure in the decisions being made about the NHS – they are on a beleaguered frontline coping with bad policies and lofty decisions.

I could continue.

The one institutional success in the UK is the quality of our armed forces – not in terms of their equipment, but in one critical respect; spirit, motivation and doctrine.

UK servicemen are trained to lead. From the lance corporal ready to step-up and take over a squad, right up the hierarchy they are taught to take responsibility, make decisions, and act swiftly and aggressively upon them. The success of the doctrine of individual initiative is being demonstrated by the Ukrainian Army – UK training cadres have taught them our doctrine and to take responsibility. It’s given them the sense of battlefield ownership that’s stunned, stalled and reversed top-down Soviet-era tactical doctrines.

Which leads us back to the railways in the UK.

UK railways are poised at the edge of a precipice – and about to take a step into oblivion. Leisure travel is recovering post Covid – boosted by staycations, the impossibility of getting a passport renewed (another civil service failure), and the cost of petrol. But the rail companies, effectively nationalised during the Pandemic, are haemorrhaging money because business travel is still only 70% of pre-pandemic levels.

In the case of South Western, business passenger numbers on my line, the Southampton/Waterloo line, are down 50% since Covid. It’s only a one-hour journey, but now costs £85 for a day return, even with a discount rail card. The equivalent trip in Germany costs less than €15. The cost has risen far above inflation over the last 12 years of Conservative government to pay for “improvements” that have never come. (No comment on the new Elizabeth line – £4 bln overbudget and 4 years later.. serving London.)

To make a bad situation worse, the rail-workers have voted to strike. Many will say its lemming-like to demand higher pay and better conditions during a crisis. The workers say the railways are being run on a shoestring already, they object to cutting services – there are no longer tea/drinks trollies on any services, and the management want to close ticket offices to save money: “It’s not just just cutting costs, but it can also provide a better customer experience”, said one rail manager with a degree in dumbf*ckery. The track workers object to cuts on safety grounds.

To maintain their current services the Railways need workers to return to their offices.  I can do most of my day-job from home; Zooms, Teams, due diligence and research, writing up pitch documents and editing notes, but I actually like going into the office – it’s a chance for catch-up, debate and argue with my colleagues, and to visit with clients.

But is it worth it?

Probably the busiest and most lucrative train of the day is the 6.35 am from Southampton Airport. It gets me into central London in plenty time for 8.00 am meetings. When it works it’s been pretty much perfect – a nice comfy seat with a table for the laptop. I work there and back. I can write the porridge and have it ready to send by the time I arrive in the office.

Not any more.

South Western have changed the train from a comfortable train expressly designed for longer journeys to a local suburban train designed for 10 min hops. The seats are 20% smaller to make more space to stand. I am a fatty which means my great big wobbly bottom is too big for the seat. Its uncomfortable and means everyone is squeezed in like sardines. There are no tables – laps-tops have to sit on knees, inches from fellow passengers. The train is noticeably noisier and bouncier. There are no on-board services and notably fewer toilets.

South Western Railways describe this as an “improved service”. They call it “progress”..

The train guard was never consulted. I spoke to the guys in the ticket office. They were equally appalled and sincerely sorry. None of the front-line staff were asked what the customer consequences of less comfortable trains with no working facilities would likely be. The decision was taken by senior management – who the staff reckon drive to work. They only learnt about the changes when they turned up at the depot or the station.

South Western Trains’ brilliant management plan to get the 50% of business passengers back on the train by making the service worse. That is just genius. How much is Putin paying them?

The train company says it will enable them to carry more passengers on peak services. FROAD. We don’t want to pay more for less so the head of the railway quango can collect a bigger pension. Sack them all…. Now.

Five things to read this morning about markets..

FT – Ukraine’s battlefield agility pays off

WSJ – SEC Proposes More Disclosure Requirements for ESG Funds

BBerg – Shanghai Port Rebounds as Lockdown Loosens But Backlog Remains

BBerg – China’s Premier Offers Bleak Outlook as GDP Target Hopes Fade

FT – Martin Wolf: Olivier Blanchard: “There’s a tendency for markets to focus on the present and extrapolate it forever.”

Out of time, and too traumatised to catch a train…

Bill Blain

Strategist – Shard Capital


  1. I wonder what you think of Mr. Sunak’s windfall profits tax. What companies? Do you tax Chevron’s exports to the UK? Seems easier said than done.

  2. Mr. Blain I greatly appreciate your columns. Your insight is a constant read for me. And you are a sailor!! The happiest time of my life was live a board a Tayana 42 center cockpit. Alas, a divorce took that. Then a Cherubini 37 cutter rig. Now, pure laziness has me looking at a Freedom 30. Thanks for your marvelous column.

  3. Youb are so right – I wrote this yesterday!
    “Is another industry suicide on the cards? After Red Robbo destroyed the bulk of the UK car industry (where are you now Austin, Morris, Riley, Wolseley etc), and Arthur Scargill did the same for the coal industry, we are looking down the barrel at the rail business. Does anyone believe that, with WFH well established, rail travel will return to its pre-pandemic levels soon, if ever? Instead of fighting over slices of a diminishing cake, it would be exciting if rail management and unions took a long view and made a proper plan. Two facts need to be accepted. Trains don’t need drivers – vide any airport rail link in the world, and indeed the Docklands Light Railway. Signal boxes don’t need signalmen – most are already replaced by electronics. So how to solve the economic and social issues of that? I suggest no immediate redundancies, but as part of the rolling rebuild of our rail network in a 21st century manner, the emoluments of all staff who retire should then be distributed amongst those who remain. There will be plenty, as it must make sense to have a guard/emergency driver on every train. We’d get a modern rail system, and a workforce which became progressively better paid.

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